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ROME – Baseball’s playoffs begin this week, capping what’s been a record-shattering year. Aaron Judge of the Yankees has surpassed the mythical mark of 60 home runs in a season, Albert Pujols of the Cardinals has gone over 700 homers in a career, and the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani has obliterated the record for combined home runs and pitching wins in a season that belonged to none other than Babe Ruth.
Among baseball fans, the glut of achievement has renewed debate about the sport’s most unbreakable record. Many of us still believe it’s Nolan Ryan’s career strikeouts total of 5,714, considering that the pitcher in second place, Randy Johnson, has almost 1,000 fewer.
In turn, baseball’s ferment started me thinking about a similar question vis-à-vis Catholicism. What might be considered the church’s own most unbreakable record?
Upon reflection, here’s my candidate: Fastest path to canonization, a record which belongs to St. Peter of Verona, also known as St. Peter Martyr, who was declared a saint in 1253 just 337 days after his death.
By way of comparison, the fastest modern canonization belongs to St. John Paul II, who was proclaimed a saint in 2013 eight full years after he died. Other modern sainthoods considered “fast track” took at least a decade, such as St. María de la Purísima, a Spanish Sister of the Cross, declared a saint 12 years after her death, and St. Teresa of Calcutta, better known as Mother Teresa, whose cause lasted 19 years.
Of course, comparing modern sainthood causes to earlier eras is a complete apples-and-oranges exercise, because over the centuries the process has become far more formal, and therefore more cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive.
Today, in order to be declared a saint a candidate must move through the stages of being declared venerable and then blessed first, with stringent requirements for the collection of testimony and the documentation of miracles. There’s also a mandatory five-year waiting period before a cause can begin, though a pope can waive it.
It’s illustrative that St. Peter of Verona and his close seconds, St. Anthony of Padua (352 days) and St. Francis of Assisi (639 days), all were canonized in the 13th century, well before any of those rules were in place.
(Notably, all three were also Italians, which just goes to show that in both baseball and the church, there is such a thing as home field advantage.)
As a result, it’s virtually unimaginable that a canonization could happen again within a single year from death. Consider that while Ryan’s strikeout record has stood for almost 30 years, Peter of Verona’s is unsurpassed for nearly eight centuries.
I did consider other possibilities.
For example, St. John Paul II’s career mark for most canonizations, 482, was not only more than any previous pope, but more than all previous popes combined. It’s actually not even close – in the 600 years prior to John Paul’s papacy, marking the era in which popes became the one to declare someone a saint, there had been only about 300 canonizations.
Yet at least some of that is simply due to John Paul’s longevity in office. Those 482 canonizations work out to a little over 17 a year, which isn’t dramatically different from the roughly 10 canonizations a year we’ve seen so far under Pope Francis.
If another pope were to be elected at a young age like John Paul, and if he were to share John Paul’s passion for lifting up role models of holiness, it’s possible similar numbers could be posted.
One might say the same thing about many other John Paul II all-time records, such as miles traveled (750,000, which is three times the distance between the earth and the moon) or countries visited (129, making it easier to list the ones he didn’t get to). Elect another pope in his 50s with reasonable health and energy levels, and similar marks could, at least theoretically, be set.
I also considered the all-time record for the shortest papacy, which belongs to Urban VII, who reigned from Sept. 15th to the 27th in 1590, meaning just 13 days. By way of comparison, the briefest modern papacy, Blessed John Paul II, lasted two and a half times longer at 33 days.
Urban VII, who was 69, died of malaria, which he reportedly contracted while presiding over an ultimately abandoned effort to eradicate the swampy marshes that surrounded the city of Rome, and which represented a recurrent source of disease. (While emperors and popes periodically had attempted to do something about it over the centuries, only Mussolini actually succeeded.)
Given modern improvements in sanitary conditions and health care, one would think that Urban VII’s 13-day reign is unlikely ever to be replicated.
On the other hand, the plain fact of the matter is that the power structure in Catholicism is a gerontocracy. The last two popes, Benedict XVI and Francis, were elected at 78 and 76 respectively. Statistically speaking, selecting leaders in their late 70s creates higher-than-average odds that, sooner or later, one of them may have another unexpectedly brief tenure.
I will say that if Pope Francis continues on his present pace of issuing motu proprio, meaning amendments to church law under his personal initiative, he may end up setting a record himself that’s fairly tough to top. The Vatican website currently lists 55 such decrees issued by Francis in nine years, compared to 30 by John Paul II in almost 27.
(The irony of a pope who’s been such a ferocious critic of “legalism” himself being such an enthusiastic legislator is fairly striking. Still, the gap isn’t that great, and one could imagine another reforming pope surpassing it.)
To sum up, St. Peter of Verona is my nominee for holding the most unbreakable record in Catholicism. What’s yours?